Last Saturday on Radio 2 Claudia Winkleman was inaugurated as the host of what was formerly Graham Norton’s mid-morning spot. She announced her arrival by playing ‘Help!’ by the Beatles and offering a line-up comprised solely of fellow Saturday-night TV presenters. Here was Sir Tom Jones, calling in from ‘a terrace overlooking the Thames’ and repeating more or less the same interview he had delivered on Graham Norton’s TV show last month. Half an hour later came David Walliams, and to round things off Ant & Dec were prevailed upon to talk about their ‘jampacked’ ITV show later on that day. ‘How do you not unravel doing it?’ gushed Winkleman, as if A&D have not been a tightly ravelled mainstay of jampacked shows since about 1900.
The only genuinely interesting moment in the whole three hours was when Zoe from the BBC’s tech department was rung up in order to explain why the ‘crying with laughter’ emoji was being phased out as it was deemed old-fashioned. A good discussion might have ensued about the consortium that apparently selects emojis, but the opportunity was hijacked by Winkleman telling everyone (again) that she is 49 and that the word ‘consortium’ is a bit too long for her to use with confidence. Apparently, Radio 2 has booked Claudia in order to focus on its target audience of 35- to 44-year-old ‘Mood Mums’, but from the evidence of this show, the station doesn’t regard them as very clever.
For clever, please visit The History of English Podcast, truly ‘jampacked’ with amazing facts that you can carry around with you and muse upon whenever you are reading, writing or speaking English. Each 30-minute episode is intellectually demanding, yet straightforward, without any In Our Time boffinery. It’s hosted by Kevin Stroud, a friendly American lawyer who doesn’t bother with experts, guests or incidental music. Stroud embarked on his research after an epiphany on the pronunciation of ‘Beowulf’ in ‘an otherwise non-eventful lecture’ at high school.
You do not have to be a classicist or even a linguist in order to understand what is going on. All you need is the time to listen to Stroud going carefully through the development of English from the Proto-Indo-European mothership around 2,000 BC in a place where there were honey bees and beech trees. How do we know that? Because that’s where the words come from. As do ‘foot’ and ‘pied’, which were once the same word, because ‘f’ and ‘p’ were once the same deal.
The shape-shifting letter ‘C’ is given an entire episode of its own. Middle English scribes who needed to indicate whether ‘C’ was pronounced softly — as in ‘century’ — or had retained a hard sound as in ‘cyning’ (meaning ruler), simply resurrected the forgotten letter ‘K’ which had been decommissioned by the Romans, and really not used much. So ‘cyning’ becomes ‘king’. Meanwhile, the word used for extreme wealth in Old English which was spelt ‘rice’, was pronounced with a soft ‘ch’ as in the Italian ‘ciao’. To make this quite clear, Middle Age scribes brought in ‘H’. As they did to words ‘cirice’ (place of worship) and ‘cild’ (young person). Stroud manages to deliver similarly delicious lightbulb moments in every episode, and it’s hard not to listen to it and then run around shouting: ‘Let me tell you about the invention of the word “Rich”! And “Church”! And “Child”!’, to anyone passing by.
‘Some linguists,’ says Stroud, ‘think of English as a massive oak tree. The roots and trunk are Germanic.’ German words are the first that small children learn to read and write. In fact, according to Stroud, the 25 most commonly used words in English are unchanged from their Germanic antecedents and represent the core of our tongue. Word number one is ‘I’. Number 25 is ‘from’. It’s not until we get to Number 42, which is the word ‘use’, that a non-Germanic word turns up. Stroud does not focus on Old English obscenities, and whether they have remained unchanged after 3,000 years of use, but this might be a treat in store. I am only on episode eight of 145.